NFL free agency 2021: The 21 greatest free agent moves in league history

Nate Davis

The NFL's 2021 free agency period officially begins next week. This time of year is typically one of the league's most compelling, often more fascinating than a regular-season week as teams reload, unload and inevitably change – some giving their fans new hope, others dashing hope altogether.

Yet the odd thing about free agency, which the NFL finally adopted in its familiar form in 1993, is that it rarely leads to franchise- or career-altering impacts for teams or players.

Still, there have been very notable signings over the years, so let's explore some of the best – and, for the purpose of this article, we're going to limit the scope to players who actually switched teams. With that caveat in mind, here are 21 of the greatest free-agent moves ever:

21. DE Cameron Wake

The bottom of this list starts at the top of North America. Undrafted out of Penn State in 2005, Wake ventured north of the border – and made his mark by winning the Canadian Football League's most outstanding defensive player award in 2007 and 2008 for the BC Lions. He signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2009 and racked up 98 sacks and five Pro Bowl nods over the next 10 years.

20. DE Justin Smith

Known as "The Cowboy," the 2001 first-rounder had seven nondescript seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. But when he signed a six-year, $45 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008, Smith became one of the more dominant D-linemen to man an odd front – making five consecutive Pro Bowls for the Niners while serving as a key member of the 2012 NFC champions.

19. DE Simeon Rice

He left the Arizona Cardinals in 2001, lured by a five-year, $30-plus million offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rice racked up 69½ sacks in six years with the Bucs, including 15½ in 2002 when the club – propelled by one of the best defenses in league history – won the Super Bowl for the first time.

18. OLB Mike Vrabel

It was hardly major news when the 1997 third-rounder jumped from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the New England Patriots in 2001. But Vrabel and Willie McGinest formed an excellent edge combo as the Pats blossomed into a dynasty. Vrabel won three rings, was an All-Pro for the 2007 team that went 16-0 in the regular season and caught 10 passes as a tight end in eight years for New England, all of them resulting in TDs.

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17. RB Priest Holmes

A backup for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2000, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and reeled off three seasons that rival what any back has accomplished over a similar stretch. An All-Pro every year from 2001 to 2003, Holmes was the league's offensive player of the year in 2002 and led the NFL in touchdowns and yards from scrimmage twice in that span, averaging 2,189 total yards and 20 TDs. He was on track for a similar season in 2004 before a knee injury cut it short after eight games.

16. RB Curtis Martin

He jumped from the Patriots to the AFC East rival New York Jets in 1998 as a restricted free agent courtesy of a controversial offer sheet that the Pats couldn't reasonably match. Martin averaged 1,367 rushing yards over the next seven seasons for the Jets, helping them to four playoff berths and the 1998 AFC championship game before going into the Hall of Fame.

15. QB Warren Moon

After dominating the CFL over a six-year period – Moon led Edmonton to five Grey Cups – he finally joined the NFL's Houston Oilers for the 1984 season and became one of the league's most prolific passers over the next 17 years (the first 10 spent in Houston). Moon finished with 70,000 passing yards combined between his stints in the CFL and NFL.

14. DB Tyrann Mathieu

He's about to enter the final season of a three-year, $42 million contract with the Chiefs. The Honey Badger's first two years in K.C. have ended with two Super Bowl trips and two All-Pro nods. He helped steady a shaky defense in 2019, when Kansas City won its first championship in 50 years.

13. QB Rich Gannon

A journeyman when he joined the Oakland Raiders in 1999, Gannon suddenly blossomed into a Pro Bowler over the next four years – winning league MVP honors in 2002, which was also the last time the Silver and Black reached the Super Bowl.

12. DB Rod Woodson

His Hall of Fame career was likely cemented after his first 10 years in Pittsburgh, where he was a five-time All-Pro corner. But Woodson played for three more teams in his final seven seasons, serving as a Pro Bowl safety for the legendary 2000 Ravens defense and getting his only All-Pro nod at safety two years later when he was Gannon's teammate on the 2002 AFC champion Raiders.

11. CB Stephon Gilmore

Staying in the AFC East, he jumped from the Buffalo Bills to the Patriots in 2017 thanks to a five-year, $65 million offer. New England went to the Super Bowl each of the next two years, winning it after the 2018 season. Then Gilmore became the rare corner to win defensive player of the year honors in 2019.

10. QB Nick Foles

Selected by the Eagles in the third round of the 2012 draft, he returned to Philadelphia after a two-season absence in 2017 on a two-year, $11 million contract so he could back up Carson Wentz. Of course, "Saint Nick" stepped in for injured Wentz late that year and led the Eagles on a stunning playoff run that culminated with their first Lombardi Trophy, Foles earning Super Bowl 52 MVP honors after outdueling Tom Brady and the Patriots.

9. QB Jim Plunkett

The No. 1 overall pick of the 1971 draft by the Patriots, Plunkett was a bust by the time he joined his third team, the Raiders, as a backup in 1978. But two years later, he replaced injured Dan Pastorini and helped Oakland become the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. The MVP of Super Bowl 15, Plunkett was also at the helm when the Raiders, then playing in Los Angeles, won their most recent championship following the 1983 season.

8. OLB James Harrison

He went undrafted but eventually hooked on with the Steelers. Then he signed with the Ravens in 2003 and wound up in NFL Europe. Harrison rejoined the Steelers in 2004 and was a part-time player the following year, when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl 40. By 2007, he was a Pro Bowler. By 2008, he was the league's defensive player of the year – when he also tightroped his way to a 100-yard pick six in the Steelers' Super Bowl 43 victory.

7. QB Kurt Warner

Undrafted in 1994, he knocked around the NFL, NFL Europe and Arena football before latching on with St. Louis in 1998. The rest is pretty much history for the former grocery stocker, who led the formerly woebegone Rams to their only Super Bowl victory following the 1999 season, another Super Bowl trip two years later, then took the even more woebegone Cardinals to their only Super Sunday in 2009 – when they were foiled by Harrison and the Steelers. Warner also spent most of 2004 mentoring future Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning while with the Giants.

6. QB Tom Brady

After 20 years in New England, he merely shows up in Tampa last season and turns the Bucs from also-rans into Super Bowl 55 champions, winning his record fifth Super Bowl MVP award for good measure. No big deal. TB12 joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to win Super Bowls for multiple franchises.

Neither Saints QB Drew Brees (9) nor Buccaneers QB Tom Brady began their NFL careers with their current clubs.

5. CB Charles Woodson

He seemed like a player in steep decline by the time he left Oakland in 2006. But "Wood" crafted quite a second act with the Green Bay Packers, the only team willing to give him a second chance. Woodson made the most of it, the league's defensive player of the year in 2009 and a Super Bowl champion a year later.

4. CB Deion Sanders

He established his lockdown reputation as a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 1989. But "Prime" bolted for the then-NFC West rival 49ers in 1994, winning defensive player of the year while San Francisco cruised to victory in Super Bowl 29. Then Sanders signed with another team in 1995 – the Dallas Cowboys – and capped it with one more Super Bowl ring.

3. QB Peyton Manning

When a neck injury forced the four-time MVP to miss the 2011 season, it wasn't clear if Manning would play again. Well, he never played for the Indianapolis Colts again – they drafted Andrew Luck in 2012 – but signed with the Denver Broncos for five years and $96 million. Manning wound up playing four more seasons, winning another MVP in 2013 – he set single-season passing records with 5,477 yards and 55 TDs – and guiding the Broncos to a pair of Super Bowls. He might have been a shell of himself by the end of the 2015 season but was a Super Bowl 50 champ by the time he took his final NFL snap.

2. DE Reggie White

His lawsuit against the NFL helped usher in free agency in 1993, when White left the Eagles for the Packers and a four-year, $17 million contract that seemed monstrous by that era's standards. But White delivered, restoring the Pack to prominence – his tenure punctuated with a Super Sunday record three sacks as Green Bay beat the Patriots in Super Bowl 31. White and Co. returned to the Super Bowl the following year but failed to repeat.

1. QB Drew Brees

He tore the labrum of his throwing shoulder in the final game of the San Diego Chargers' 2005 season. Not even three months later, the Saints – back in New Orleans amid Hurricane Katrina's aftermath – took a chance on Brees and his surgically rebuilt wing to the tune of a six-year, $60 million arrangement. Of course, he wound up playing a key part in the team's and city's revitalization, winning Super Bowl 44 MVP honors as the Saints secured their only Lombardi Trophy. Brees is expected to retire as the league's all-time leader in passing yards (80,358) after rewriting the record book during his 15 years in The Big Easy.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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