Entering the 2006 free agent market, the Miami Dolphins controlled their own destiny of who they would choose as the high profile free agent quarterback to take their franchise into the future. The obvious choice was between former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper who ended his 2005 season with a devastating knee-injury-trifecta and Drew Brees who ended his 2005 season with a shoulder injury in the Pro Bowl.
Both Brees and Culpepper were established Pro Bowlers, but Culpeppers amazing 2000 and 2004 seasons gave him the advantage over Brees who was far more erratic in his professional career in San Diego. Still, many medics warned that Culpeppers knee injury was far more serious than Brees' shoulder injury.
Still, the Dolphins sided with Culpepper, a decision they regretted tremendously by week two, while Brees immediately signed a long term deal with the New Orleans Saints. That season the Dolphins lined themselves up for a top ten pick while the Saints went to the NFC Championship game.
Since 2006 Brees has developed into a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and has been an MVP candidate in three of his four seasons with the Saints, throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2008. If it wasn't for Peyton Manning, a strong argument could be made for Brees as the best quarterback in the NFL since 2005.
Next Sunday Drew Brees will face Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV; the game will be the Saint franchises first Super Bowl, and removes the stain of "worst franchise in the NFL" from the New Orleans football team. Brees' ability to take the Saints from perennial loser to contend also raises the question, is Brees the greatest free agent signing in NFL history?
The answer is definitely "not yet." But Brees could be on his way.
For me personally, I can't think of the phrase "NFL free agent signing" without immediately thinking of Reggie White, who in 1993 joined an on-the-verge Green Bay Packers team and helped take them over the top. In White's six seasons in Green Bay he notched close to 70 sacks, won an NFL defensive player of the year award, and lead the Green Bay defense to its first Super Bowl title since Super Bowl II.
After White, the next trend setter in free agency is Curtis Martin, who in 1998 left New England to join his former coaching staff in New York. Martin signed a then-tremendous six year thirty-six million dollar deal, and immediately made an impact leading the Jets to the AFC Championship game in his first season in the Parcells coached backfield. From 1998 to 2005 Curtis Martin was a guarantee for 1,000 yards every season, earning multiple Pro Bowls and a rushing title. Most Jet fans would agree that though he wasn't drafted by the team, Curtis Martin is the second greatest Jet of all time. Second only to the immortal Joe Namath.
Signing a 33 year old journeyman quarterback is usually not worth mentioning, but in 1999 an old Rich Gannon joined a young Jon Gruden in Oakland and history was made. In Gannon, the Raiders got arguably their most prolific quarterback in franchise history, an MVP, Pro Bowler, and Super Bowl quarterback. Unfortunately for the Raiders, they had the right quarterback in place, but Gruden was on the opposing sideline for Super Bowl XXXVII when he lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory over Gannon's Raiders. Still, without the Gannon signing of 1999, chances are the Raiders never get to the Super Bowl that year, and Gruden doesn't have the profile to sign with the Bucs in 2002. Imagine that.
In 2005 Plaxico Burress jumped ship from Pittsburgh to New York to become sophomore quarterback Eli Mannings go-to-guy. That season Ben Roethlisberger, another sophomore, lead the Steelers to an improbable Super Bowl XL victory while Burress' team was embarrassed at home in the snow on wild card weekend. Over the next three seasons Burress' presence helped Eli Manning develop into one of the leagues premiere passes, and two years later in Super Bowl XLII it was Burress who caught the perfection-ending touchdown to bury the Patriots dreams of being the NFL's first 19-0 team; granting the New York Giants their Super Bowl victory, and establishing Burress as one of the leagues elite wide receivers. Unfortunately for Burress, a gun related incident at a club in 2008 ended his what-could-have-been-hall-of-fame career, and sent Burress to prison.
Drew Brees' 2006 signing definitely belongs on this list. If Brees wins the Super Bowl, chances are one day it will probably be considered number one. Heck, if the Brees wins Super Bowl XLIV that signing will probably be number one the second the clock ticks to 0:00. But for now, it's not quite White or Burress considering they have rings, Gannon has an MVP, and Martin is a Hall of Famer.
Though what Brees has done for the Saints franchise is immeasurable, and somewhere a Chargers fan is pissed (and lets not get started with those Dolphins fans).