Free agency has become one of the tentpole events of the NFL calendar, and though that wasn’t always the case, it’s hard to imagine the game without the frenzied week on the yearly calendar. Some free agents turn out to be fool’s gold, but some help teams strike it rich. Today, we explore the best free agent signings of all time.
Who Are the Best Free Agent Signings of All Time?
In compiling this list, I’m only considering players who switched teams after already making it to the NFL. So while Tony Romo, Arian Foster, and Antonio Gates changed the fortunes of their respective franchises, undrafted free agent signings will not be represented on this list, as those feel more like draft-related stories than free agent moments.
QB Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
“Peyton Manning will be a free agent?!” That was the exclaimed question on most people’s minds when the Indianapolis Colts officially announced that they would be moving on from the greatest player in a franchise history filled to the brim with Hall of Famers.
Peyton Manning was the city of Indianapolis. He was The Sheriff. He ran the town. And then, all of a sudden, he was to be the face of a new franchise.
Of course, the move made some sense for Indianapolis, even if it didn’t go as planned. The Colts had the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and Andrew Luck, the greatest QB prospect since John Elway, was coming out of Stanford. Manning had just undergone serious neck surgery, and there were fair questions as to the viability of his playing future.
But Peyton Manning was still Peyton Manning, and so he had his fair share of suitors. Among the most interested teams were the Miami Dolphins, the Tennessee Titans, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Denver Broncos. Denver pushed hard to secure Manning’s services, with general manager Elway and head coach John Fox actively recruiting him.
One five-year, $96 million contract later, and Manning selected the Mile High City.
Manning’s Broncos tenure was a resounding success. Denver made the playoffs in all four years of his career in orange crush. In his second season, he earned the NFL MVP award while setting records for the most passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in a single season, and Denver became the first team to score more than 600 points in one year (606).
That 2013 Broncos squad is widely considered to be one of the greatest NFL teams in history, despite being blown out by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
In 2015, Manning was clearly on the decline and hampered by injury, but he cemented his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game when he and a historically stout Broncos defense defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, securing The Sheriff’s second Lombardi Trophy.
QB Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The G.O.A.T. was set to be a free agent. It was an earth-shattering moment in the NFL landscape just a few years ago, and one that had nearly every team in the league questioning whether they should re-evaluate their quarterback position.
Tom Brady entered the free agent landscape with six Super Bowl rings, three league MVP awards, and a litany of NFL records to his name following 20 seasons with the New England Patriots. Brady had his choice of suitors, and he ultimately selected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the understanding that the team would go all in to win a Super Bowl during the then-42-year-old’s tenure.
To make such a philosophy possible, Brady signed a two-year, $50 million deal worth $25 million per year, a relative bargain given the exploding nature of the QB market.
The Buccaneers were able to use the rest of their cap space to build around Brady, signing veterans like RBs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy, trading for star TE Rob Gronkowski, and retaining key players in DT Ndamukong Suh, EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul, and OLB Shaquil Barrett.
With Brady in tow, the Buccaneers made an immediate Super Bowl run, ultimately taking down the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. The Bucs were the first team to host the big game in their own stadium, and Brady earned his record seventh Lombardi Trophy. The Bucs made the playoffs in each of Brady’s next and final two NFL seasons.
DE Reggie White, Green Bay Packers
Reggie White is synonymous with the birth of NFL free agency. After a Hall of Fame-worthy career with the Philadelphia Eagles, White joined the Green Bay Packers to put together what would become essentially a second sterling career.
White was the best defensive player in the NFL when he became the NFL’s first major free agent star (free agency as we know it today was implemented in 1993). He had an astounding 124 sacks across eight seasons in Philly, which included two years leading the league in QB takedowns and one Defensive Player of the Year award.
White, who was also recruited by teams like San Francisco and Washington, took Green Bay’s four-year, $17 million offer, a deal the other two simply couldn’t or weren’t willing to match (which sounds almost comical compared to some of the numbers we see today).
The fearsome pass rusher continued his run of dominant football in Green Bay well into his 30s, accruing 33 sacks over his first three seasons with the team.
In 1996, White’s fourth year with the Packers, he recorded 12 more sacks and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. He was arguably the most pivotal player in Green Bay’s triumph over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 31, as he harassed Pats QB Drew Bledsoe all game long with three sacks and constant pressure.
He earned his second Defensive Player of the Year Award two years later in his penultimate season.
White, who was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame when first eligible five years after his retirement, is widely recognized as one of the best defensive players of all time.
QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is now known as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but unlike the first three entries on our list, he was a massive gamble when he hit the free agent market.
Brees was selected in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft after a productive career at Purdue. He spent his entire rookie season backing up Doug Flutie with the San Diego Chargers before taking over the starting job in his second year. Brees showed immense promise, but a shoulder injury in 2005 clouded his future.
The Chargers gave Brees an offer when he hit free agency, but much of its value was largely incentive-based, and the QB ultimately decided to meet with other suitors.
The Miami Dolphins infamously passed on the soon-to-be superstar due to concerns over his shoulder, allowing him to land with the franchise he’d call home for the rest of his career — the New Orleans Saints.
Brees was an immediate star in New Orleans. In his first season with the team, he led the league in passing yards. In his second season, he led the league in completions. And in his third, Brees led the league in completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, establishing himself among the league’s elite at the position and winning Offensive Player of the Year.
In those three seasons, the individual accolades and praise were abundant, but postseason success eluded the Saints. That all changed in 2009 when Brees and head coach Sean Peyton spearheaded one of the league’s best units and drove the team to the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record.
The Saints clobbered the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round, defeated the Minnesota Vikings in a thrilling NFC Championship Game overtime victory, and took down Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44.
Though a second Lombardi Trophy would elude Brees for the rest of his career, he was a pillar of stability for nearly 15 years with the Saints. In New Orleans, he became the first QB to pass for over 80,000 yards and set a cavalcade of NFL records, many of which still stand (and many of which were eventually broken by Brady).
Given the length of his tenure and status as the true icon of his second franchise, Brees has a strong argument as the greatest free agent signing of all time.
RB Curtis Martin, New York Jets
One of the best players in the history of the New York Jets began his career with the division rival New England Patriots. Curtis Martin was selected in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft and became an immediate stud with the Pats.
Martin rushed for 1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns in his rookie season and tacked on 30 receptions for 261 yards through the air. Two more uber-productive seasons in New England led to Martin receiving strong interest as a restricted free agent in the 1998 offseason.
His former head coach, Bill Parcells, and the New York Jets made a strong offer at six years, $36 million, but the most notable aspect of the offer sheet was that it contained a “poison pill.” The term is used to describe an ingredient in an offer sheet that makes it virtually impossible, or, at the very least, highly unappealing for the team holding a player’s right of first refusal to match.
Here, the poison pill was as follows: “a provision in which Martin could become an unrestricted free agent the following season if the Patriots matched the offer, allowing him to leave New England without the Patriots receiving a dime,” according to NJ.com. The deal also included a roster bonus that would’ve been untenable given the Patriots’ salary cap.
New England didn’t match, but the team filed a complaint with the NFL, arguing a violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, and ultimately received the Jets’ first- and third-round picks in the 1998 NFL Draft in compensation.
It was all worth it for New York. Martin was one of the league’s best running backs for nearly his entire tenure with the Jets and rushed for seven straight 1,000+ yard seasons. In his sixth year with the team and age-31 season, Martin racked up a league-high 1,697 yards at a career-high 4.6 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Following his retirement, the Jets retired Martin’s No. 28 jersey and inducted him into the team’s Ring of Honor. Martin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.