The NFL green-lighting full-fledged free agency in 1993 changed the league, opening the door to higher-profile players relocating each offseason. Entering free agency's 29th year, here are the best signings from its previous 28. With one notable exception, this list will include offseason moves only and omit training camp cuts or late-season practice squad gems.
The safety market has now climbed to $17.5 million a year, and seven non-Jamal Adams safeties earn north of $14 million annually. The Browns nabbed this year's top safety available on an $11.25M-per-year deal, and the three-year accord points to the best seasons of Johnson's career coming in Cleveland. Pro Football Focus graded Johnson as a top-12 safety in three of his four Rams years, with one of those -- Los Angeles' Super Bowl LIII season -- including five INTs. Ex-Rams DBs Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner burned teams in free agency, but Johnson, 25, is younger and should help a Browns defense that struggled in 2020.
As more seasons pass, this class may yield a different winner. But for now, there is no other true option. The prize of an active quarterback offseason struggled often during the regular season and nearly caused a Bucs NFC championship game collapse, but Brady provided the final piece for a franchise that had missed the playoffs in the previous 12 seasons. The 43-year-old QB made the plays he needed to make in Super Bowl LV, and the veterans he brought to Tampa -- Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown -- proved vital in cementing the Bucs' title. A windfall on a two-year, $50 million investment.
Tyrann Mathieu is an option here, but the Chiefs gave him a then-safety-record $14 million-per-year deal. The Bucs landed Barrett for one year and $4M. Only the Bucs and Bengals offered him a deal. Counting the playoffs, the former UDFA has 31.5 sacks over the past two years. Barrett broke Warren Sapp's single-season sack record in 2019, and the Bucs likely do not win their second Super Bowl without his three sacks of Aaron Rodgers and nightlong tormenting of Patrick Mahomes. After receiving the franchise tag in 2020, Barrett secured his sought-after long-term contract ahead of his age-29 season.
A sneaky part of New Orleans' consistency over the past three seasons, Davis has been an elite off-ball linebacker since signing a three-year, $24 million Saints pact. Though not a pure pass rusher, Davis has succeeded frequently on blitzes from his off-ball linebacker post. He has tallied 13 sacks as a Saint and anchored the linebacking corps of three upper-echelon defenses. Davis has recorded at least 110 tackles in each of his three Saints slates, doing so without missing a game. An All-Pro in 2019, the former Jets draftee has stayed on this level into his 30s and has since signed another Saints contract.
Calais Campbell took an early lead here, leading to the creation of the Jaguars' "Sacksonville" alias. Gilmore helped stymie those troops, breaking up a Blake Bortles pass to close the Patriots' AFC championship game rally. A year later, he notched an interception in the Pats' dominant defensive outing in Super Bowl LIII. And in 2019, Gilmore delivered one of the finest cornerback seasons in NFL history -- six INTs, a ghastly 44.1 passer rating against -- en route to Defensive Player of the Year honors. Bill Belichick's five-year, $65M deal for an inconsistent Bills defender led to two more Super Bowl berths.
With the Browns entering one of the NFL's more radical rebuild efforts, they let two impact free agent O-linemen go in 2016. Alex Mack made more Pro Bowls, because right tackles are hardly ever invited, but Schwartz became a key cog for a team on the rise. The Chiefs landed Mitchell Schwartz, the younger brother of ex-Chief right tackle Geoff Schwartz, on a five-year deal worth $33 million. That was a bargain, with the younger Schwartz ensuring Alex Smith and later Patrick Mahomes received premier protection. This partnership lasted five seasons, with Schwartz earning first- or second-team All-Pro acclaim in four those.
The Raiders doled out a few big free agency payments in the mid-2010s. Two of them -- deals for Hudson and Kelechi Osemele -- went to an offensive line that became one of the NFL's best. While injuries dogged Osemele, Hudson has become an elite center since signing a five-year, $44.5M contract six years ago. An effective but unspectacular starter for most of his Chiefs tenure, Hudson enhanced his profile with the Raiders. He has three Pro Bowls on his resume, helped both Latavius Murray and Josh Jacobs to 1,000-yard seasons, and has since inked an $11M-per-year extension. The Raiders traded Hudson to the Cardinals in March 2021.
After the 2014 season, this slot would have gone to Darrelle Revis. The Patriots do not win Super Bowl XLIX without Talib's replacement. By 2016, the pick-six machine changed the equation and the Broncos' trajectory. Denver signed Talib to a six-year, $57M deal. The physical corner teamed with ex-college teammate Chris Harris, T.J. Ward and others to form the No Fly Zone, which usurped Seattle's Legion of Boom as the NFL's top secondary in 2015. Denver's 2014 signings -- Talib, Ward, DeMarcus Ware, and Emmanuel Sanders -- were crucial for the team's Super Bowl title. Talib anchored the stellar class, going 4-for-4 in Pro Bowls as a Bronco.
Russell Wilson had no reason to doubt the Seahawks' roster strength at this point in time. During the star quarterback's rookie-contract years, Seattle loaded up on talent. The Seahawks acquired two long-term defensive end starters in 2013, in Bennett and Cliff Avril, and did so initially on mid-market deals. An ex-Buccaneer, Bennett signed for just one year and $5 million. His ability to play the run as an end and dominate as an interior pass rusher helped the Legion of Boom thrive and boosted the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls. Signing two extensions, Bennett stayed five seasons in Seattle and made three Pro Bowls.
Beating out the Titans and 49ers in the finals of a sweepstakes that included several more teams, the Broncos resurfaced as an NFL power because of Manning's five-year, $96M agreement. The physically diminished superstar transformed a long-middling team, leading the Broncos to four straight 12-plus-win seasons and two Super Bowls. The ex-Colt earned his sixth and seventh first-team All-Pro honors -- no other post-merger QB has more than three -- as a Bronco, and his 55-touchdown pass 2013 doubles as one of the great seasons in modern sports history. Manning's post-Super Bowl 50 exit ended Denver's run quickly.
Although Mathis later blocked for Manning during Denver's 2015 championship season, his best years came in Philadelphia. A lockout-shortened offseason created a late-summer free agency frenzy, and the Eagles' ill-fated "Dream Team" effort included a few high-profile moves. Mathis was not one of them, joining the team on a low-cost one-year deal. A mauling run blocker who defected from the Bengals, Mathis earned Pro Football Focus All-Pro acclaim three times in his four-year Eagles stay. After signing a five-year Eagles extension in 2012, Mathis helped LeSean McCoy to a rushing title a year later.
This class did not end up providing widespread value, with the 2010 uncapped year's free agency status changes thinning the talent pool. But the Bears did receive production from Peppers. Chicago gave the ex-Carolina defensive end a deal that was a record for a defensive player at the time -- six years, $91.5 million, $42M guaranteed -- and saw him make three Pro Bowls in a four-season stay. The Bears ventured to the NFC championship game in Peppers' first year, and he combined for 22.5 sacks from 2011-12. Despite Chicago cutting Peppers in 2014 when he was 34, the all-time pass-rushing great played five more seasons.
This non-traditional signing paid dividends for the Dolphins for a decade. The Dolphins signed Wake in January 2009, plucking him out of the CFL. The edge rusher flashed immediate potential and took the baton from Jason Taylor to become Miami's top sack artist for the next several seasons. Wake delivered five double-digit sack seasons, made five trips to the Pro Bowl, and finished his Dolphins career with 98 sacks in 10 seasons. Only Taylor (131) has more. The Dolphins' initial deal for Wake was worth nearly $5 million -- a record for a CFL-to-NFL pact. His next three Dolphins deals were far more lucrative.
Jim Harbaugh's 2011 arrival keyed an immediate turnaround, with the 49ers becoming a defensive force in the early 2010s. That does not happen without Smith. The Scot McCloughan-Mike Singletary regime landed Smith, a former Bengals top-10 pick, on a six-year, $45 million accord. The inside pass rusher made five straight Pro Bowl trips, from 2009-13, and catalyzed Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme that drove San Francisco to three consecutive NFC title games and Super Bowl XLVII. Arriving in the Bay Area when he was 29, Smith played seven 49ers seasons and only missed two games.
Enjoying a 16-year career, Fletcher is the rare player to deliver for two teams on long-term free agency agreements. After consistent Bills production, the former Rams undrafted find signed with Washington ahead of his age-32 season. Washington's five-year, $25 million pact did not even cover the veteran's time with the team. Fletcher played seven Washington seasons and was the team's starting middle linebacker in each, not retiring until he was 38. Never previously honored for his work, Fletcher made his only four Pro Bowls -- the last of which for a five-INT, 139-tackle 2012 slate -- with Washington.
Months after hiring Sean Payton, the Saints gave him a quarterback. It is unquestionably the best signing since full-fledged free agency began. The Saints beat out the Dolphins for Brees, who was coming off a labrum tear sustained in his final Chargers game. Inconsistent in five Bolts seasons, the former second-round pick unleashed a never-before-seen passing explosion in New Orleans. Brees' five 5,000-yard seasons remain four more than anyone else, and he upped the Saints' playoff win total from one to 10. While Brees did not win an MVP award, the Super Bowl MVP reshaped a franchise during his 15-season tenure.
Warner went from winning two MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP in St. Louis to 2004 cap casualty after the Rams had benched him for Marc Bulger. Eli Manning then replaced him in New York. The Cardinals took a one-year, $4 million flier on a 33-year-old QB but drafted his would-be successor a year later. Matt Leinart did not work out. At 36, Warner reclaimed Arizona's QB1 job and threw 27 TD passes in 2007. He topped that in '08, leading a flawed Cards team to the only Super Bowl in franchise history. Warner offered a final Hall of Fame statement by outdueling Aaron Rodgers in an all-time playoff shootout at age 38.
The first of the NFL's Antoine Winfields joined the Vikings after a five-year Bills career. Like Anthony Barr 15 years later, Winfield backed out of a Jets agreement at the 11th hour and signed with the Vikings. He agreed to a six-year, $34.8M contract. The cornerback became a staple on the boundary and in the slot for the Vikings, playing nine seasons in Minnesota. Winfield earned all three of his Pro Bowl nods in his 30s. The former first-round pick began his Vikes run in Daunte Culpepper's final year, was an essential piece on the Brett Favre-led 2009 Super Bowl contender, and hung around into the Christian Ponder experiment.
Harrison's defection from San Diego to New England helped lead to Bill Belichick's Patriots apex. The Chargers lost Harrison and Junior Seau in the same offseason. While Seau went to Miami, Harrison became a linchpin of No. 1- and No. 2-ranked defenses -- units that secured the Pats consecutive Super Bowl titles in 2003 and '04. The menacing hitter intercepted six passes in the playoffs during that span and stayed in New England for six years. While his playing style rubbed many the wrong way, and his final playoff game is remembered for a play he did not make, Harrison made an undeniable impact on the Pats' dynasty.
A part-timer in his first four Jets seasons, Farrior broke out in a 145-tackle contract year. The Jets let the linebacker walk, leading to a three-year, $5.4M Steelers pact. It was not his last Pittsburgh deal. Farrior played 10 seasons with the Steelers and started for all three of their 21st-century Super Bowl teams -- each of those seasons coming in his 30s. Pittsburgh boasted top-three defenses in each of those years, and Farrior fared well as a tackler and part-time rusher. He sacked Peyton Manning 2.5 times in the Steelers' 2005 playoff upset. Farrior made two Pro Bowls and started until the 2011 season.
The 2001 offseason featured some of the top moves in free agency history. Priest Holmes became a three-time All-Pro with the Chiefs; Mike Vrabel caught on with the Patriots ahead of their first Super Bowl title. And the Raiders coaxed post-40 brilliance from Jerry Rice. The other big Rice move is the pick because of his longevity and role on the Buccaneers' dominant Super Bowl defense. The ex-Cardinal defensive end gave Warren Sapp a lethal sidekick, proving instrumental in lifting the Bucs over their playoff stumbling block. An All-Pro with 15.5 sacks in 2002, Rice reeled off 67.5 sacks in his first five Bucs seasons.
Part of a late-1990s Chiefs receiver stable that included Andre Rison and Derrick Alexander, Horn moved from a supporting role in Kansas City to a top gig in New Orleans. His Saints signing preceded four Pro Bowls, with New Orleans' pre-Michael Thomas record books flooded with Horn seasons at the top. Horn helped the Saints to their first playoff win in 2000 and was Aaron Brooks' go-to receiver. (Yes, the cellphone celebration occurred during this span as well.) The Saints gave Horn multiple extensions before cutting him after Drew Brees' first season.
A bigger Chiefs free agency misstep occurred a year before Horn's exit. The Chiefs gave Elvis Grbac a deal to become their starter in 1997, but Gannon outplayed him when he came off the bench over the next two seasons. The four-year Kansas City backup defected to Oakland on a four-year deal worth $16M, teaming with Jon Gruden to lead a Raiders resurgence. Gannon, 34 in his initial Raiders season, started his Oakland career with four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro seasons. After Gruden's post-Tuck Rule exit, the aging scrambler earned MVP acclaim in 2002 and led the Raiders to their only Super Bowl in the past 35 years.
Rod Woodson's Ravens pact is an acceptable answer, given the 2000 season's events, but Mawae anchored the Jets' offensive line for eight years and stamped his Hall of Fame credentials after his free agency eastward trek. The ex-Seahawk's five-year, $17 million contract made him the NFL's highest-paid center at the time. Blocking for fellow 1998 signing Curtis Martin, Mawae's arrival coincided with Bill Parcells' '98 team going 12-4 and voyaging to the AFC title game. Mawae made the next six Pro Bowls, guiding Martin to Canton as well, and did not miss a game until his final Jets campaign (2005).
Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd receive most of the credit for the Steelers' "Blitzburgh" defenses, but Brown also broke through during that run. After his 13-sack 1996 season, Brown signed a top-market deal with the Seahawks. Seattle used the outside linebacker in a hybrid role, and Brown delivered in multiple capacities. Despite not operating as a pure pass rusher, Brown compiled 48 sacks in his eight Seattle seasons. He remained productive well into his 30s, making two Pro Bowls and becoming a key part of Mike Holmgren's playoff nuclei after the Super Bowl-winning coach's 1999 arrival.
Although NFL media struggled to pronounce the long-tenured WR2's name, he was a mainstay on two Florida offenses. The first such stretch came in Jacksonville, with the then-second-year franchise adding McCardell ahead of his fifth season. The ex-Browns wideout spent the next six years with the Jaguars, working as Jimmy Smith's overqualified wingman. The first four Smith-McCardell seasons ended in the playoffs, with two of those campaigns reaching the AFC championship game. McCardell posted four 1,100-yard seasons and three Pro Bowls in Jacksonville, helping the franchise to its peak.
Going with Smith over Deion Sanders' Cowboys agreement may be controversial, but Smith played 11 seasons in Jacksonville -- 10 at a high level -- to provide more value compared to Primetime's five-year Dallas stay. The Cowboys drafted Smith in the 1992 second round, but he did not stick in Dallas. The Jags landed Smith on a low-level deal shortly after the 1995 expansion draft; he became the most productive player in team history. Lesser-known than McCardell entering the '96 season, Smith became Mark Brunell's top target. Later working with Byron Leftwich, Smith reeled off nine 1,000-yard seasons.
Sanders is the greatest chess piece in free agency history. Although he played only one season with the 49ers and said season began late after the Cincinnati Reds outfielder signed his football deal in mid-September, it altered the NFL's timeline. It took merely $1.1 million to land the two-sport athlete; that one-year payment made a big difference in the 49ers preventing a Cowboys three-peat. The all-world cornerback blazed to Defensive Player of the Year honors at age 27, leading the NFL with 303 INT return yards and three pick-sixes. Dallas poached the brash corner in September 1995 and won Super Bowl XXX.
The player-movement sea change led to the NFL's smallest market recapturing its "Titletown" moniker. Holmgren and Ron Wolf sold White on Green Bay, landing the ex-Eagles power-rushing dynamo on a four-year, $17 million deal in April 1993. Already 32 when he changed teams, White remained an elite rusher throughout his six Packer seasons. The defensive end was 6-for-6 in Pro Bowls as a Packer, and he closed his Wisconsin years with 16 sacks at age 37. White's signature Green Bay sequence came when he rampaged through the Patriots' O-line for three second-half sacks in Super Bowl XXXI, securing the Packers' first title in 29 years.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.